BRANFORD — Music has been always been an important part of Amy Johansson’s life. Yet, it became more important after the death of her only son, in 2013.
“I feel like I’m with my son when I listen to music,” this Branford mother says. “It changes my moods, allows me to dance and feel free, let go of stress.”
It was March 28, 2013 that 24-old-year Eric Johansson died from a substance-induced suicide, Johansson says.
It is the support from Eric’s friends, family and the community that has given this Branford mother the strength to create Smile Anyway, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a resource recovery community center for families and individuals struggling with addiction and recovery.
Smile Anyway’s Second Annual Love is Louder music festival is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 31 from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., on the Branford Green, with music, addiction focused educational booths, massage, ear acupuncture, hands on healing plus Curious Creatures and face painting.
A moment of silence is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. The event is free, with a suggested donation of $10.
The day-long event falls on International Overdose Awareness Day and will include musicians Hayley Jane, Creamery Stations, Shake Down, Jen Durkin’s Steal Your Funk, Delusions of Grandeur, John Spignesi Band, Jordan Meyer and KC Makes Music, Nunz N Pepin and Tim Palmieri; in addition to over 30 supportive services, including Branford Counseling Center, East Shore District Health, Recovering Services of Connecticut and BHcare; Party Photo Booth and massage therapy.
Creamery Station mandolin player Dylan Kader says his group has worked with Johansson in the past and they are in awe of her mission.
“She’s really passionate about what she’s doing and it’s something that affects all of us, so whenever we get a chance, we love to give back and do what we can,” he adds. “When we saw her message, it was really easy to get on board with it. It speaks for itself how passionate she is, you see all the bands that are lining up to get involved with this.”
Johansson’s husband, Gary, is building a travelling wooden memorial wall.
“It’s going to be called ‘We Remember Them’ and people can bring a picture,” Johansson says. “One side will just be single photographs; the other side will be a collage of whatever you want to put up. It can be a poem; it can be anything."
This memorial wall will be the focal point of the 8:15 p.m. moment of silence.
Johansson stresses that this event and others she has worked on over the years is “about bringing the Shoreline community together and letting everyone know what is out there.”
She is referring to services for addicts. These include support groups, referrals for detox, Narcan training, among others.
“I’ve driving probably eight kids to rehab,” says Johansson, a psychiatric nurse by training.
“I met with families who have just lost a child,” she adds. “I’ve met with probably 12 in the last year who just need to come and need someone to listen, someone to say, ‘It’s not your fault, you’ve done everything, you were a good parent.’ Someone to hug them and someone to tell them how long the pain will last.
“If I can be a positive model to show them that we can make it. Then slowly, they start becoming part of Smile Anyway,” she says.
Johansson’s vision is a program “where people can come and get the support they need, like they would have at a transitional facility, but also bring the family members in and teach them healthy boundaries, to not get involved in that individual’s recovery, but take care of themselves or they have someone active and they need to take care of themselves.”
Smile Anyway has also invested in the Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) program that is “based on building ways for people to build self-confidence, create structure and healthy boundaries,” Johansson explains. This program is helpful for the recovering, as well as active, addict and their family members.
State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Branford didn’t hesitate to accept Johansson’s invitation to the attend this year’s Annual Love is Louder music festival.
“One of the greatest barriers we have to addressing this crisis is breaking down the stigma associated with addiction and mental health, and the work that she’s doing to raise awareness and draw attention to it is super important in combatting that big problem,” says Scanlon.
“Amy is one of several parents that are from our community who’ve lost a child, that have taken an incredibly terrible thing and turned it into something very important and special, and I’m always glad to support her and these other parents anytime they want to do something like this,” he adds.
While Johansson’s work helps her deal with the pain of losing her son, she is adamant that her work is not about her.
Through tears she admits she is hurting, but will continue the work that she believes is so important for the Shoreline community.
“I still cry at night,” she says. “I cry during the day. Sometimes I’m talking to people and it just happens and that’s okay. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to say you’re in pain. It’s OK to say you have grief.
“My heart’s broken. It’s broken,” she adds. “But, when I’m in that mood that I’m not sure how I can go forward anymore I put some music on, I’ll dance around the house and it changes it.”